Folks clamoring for a bit of intrigue in an otherwise lopsided Eastern Conference Finals finally got a ray of sunshine Saturday night. The Raptors dizzied the Cavaliers with a haymaker early on and held on with a series of jabs to end Cleveland’s unbeaten postseason and cut their series lead in half.
Toronto’s defense set the tone for a more confident night on both ends. The Raptors played their best defensive game of the postseason, more focused and precise than the Cavs have seen in several weeks at least. Bismack Biyombo’s 26 rebounds will be what stand out from his box score line, but it was his four blocks and generally fantastic interior defense that defined his value in this game. DeMar DeRozan was aggressive and efficient from the start on the other end of the floor, pacing the Raptors offensively along with a flurry of first half three-point shooting that had them up 17 at one point.
The loss could be a positive jolt for the Cavs, who really hadn’t encountered any tactical resistance to this point in the playoffs. The Raptors get some credit for taking them out of their game offensively, but there’s also blame aplenty on Cleveland’s side of the ledger, particularly for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – a combined 4-28 from the pair is hard to win with. They were just the most glaring representations of a general malaise from the Cavs, though; offensive sets lacked urgency and were often telegraphed to Toronto’s defense, and all three of Love, Irving and LeBron James settled for the sort of shots they’ve mostly been avoiding the last few weeks. Laziness spilled over to the defensive end, as Cleveland’s rotations were slow and they yielded far too many basic switches that led to mismatches (many for DeRozan while he was rolling).
How much of Toronto’s success in Game 3 can carry over is the big question, and while they still face a big talent gap and a powerful team, they did find a couple items with staying power. The Raptors were much more attentive both on and off the ball in pick-and-roll defense, swarming at the right times without getting turned around in rotations and losing the best shooters. They leaned more forcefully on those lazy Cleveland switches and spaced the floor much more effectively. DeRozan needs to be this decisive in every game moving forward.
Cleveland can clean up plenty from this game, though, and it’s unlikely both Love and Irving will be this ice cold on the same night again this series. The whole team’s effort level was bad for much of the night, reflected partially in a 54-40 deficit on the glass. They didn’t get LeBron in the post enough, and spent way too many possessions standing around before lazily initiating a set with 10 or 11 seconds on the shot clock.
Everyone but LeBron seemed a step out of rhythm – even Tye Lue, who made a few curious lineup decisions in the second half that seemed somewhat reactionary to one bad game after several weeks of success. Lue eschewed the James-led bench units that have typically opened second and fourth quarters (they did the former tonight), instead playing LeBron the entire third quarter and opening the fourth with a four-wing combo around Channing Frye that doesn’t really make any sense without LeBron’s versatility. Lue made a smart decision keeping Frye in the game once James returned and attempting to close the gap with a smaller lineup, but the damage was already done.
The Cavaliers should have more fire Monday night, and the Raptors now have the confidence they can beat this team. Safe money is on the former being more impactful given the skill deficit at play here, but stranger things have happened than a tied series heading back to Cleveland.
Game 4 Prediction: Cavs win
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